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A few days in Sydney for opera and symphony

By , 04/12/2015

Pinchgut Opera: L’amant jaloux by André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry
Musical director: Erin Helyard; stage director: Chas Rader-Shieber
City Recital Hall, Sydney
Thursday 3 December 2015

Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Edo de Waart  – two concerts
Preludes to acts I and III of Lohengrin; Sinfonia concertante for organ and orchestra by Joseph Jongen; Also sprach Zarathustra (Strauss)

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
Friday 27 November, 8pm

Edwards: The White Ghost; Mozart: Piano Concerto  No 24 in C minor, K 491; Elgar: Symphony No 1 in A flat, Op 55

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House

Friday 4 December, 8pm

Readers with sharp eyes will have noticed my absence from the pages of Middle C over the past month. It is partly to be explained by my little trip to Sydney to fulfil a long-standing ambition to see the work of a small Sydney opera company, Pinchgut Opera, which specializes in early opera, of the 17th and 18th centuries. When I edited New Zealand Opera News (till 2006), I conscientiously announced their forthcoming productions, and hoped to get myself there. But their once-a-year projects were typically in the first week of December and there were still too many musical and other distractions in Wellington.

The company’s name, by the way, derives from an island of that name in Sydney Harbour, which was used as a prison in the early years, and the prodigality of the rations led to the name which has persisted.

The timing of this year’s second production was especially tempting as it coincided with a couple of concerts by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Edo de Waart.

André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry
The opera was L’amant Jaloux by André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry who lived from 1741 to 1813. He was born in Liège and studied in Rome but settled in Paris to become a successful composer of mainly comic opera. He helps to breathe life into seeming opera drought between the death of Rameau till the emergence of the post-Napoleonic composers like Auber, Boieldieu, Hérold, Adam and of course Berlioz (though one should not ignore foreigners like Gluck, Cherubini, Piccinni, Spontini and Rossini).

There is a ballet suite drawn by Thomas Beecham from Grétry’s Richard Coeur-de-Lion that gets an occasional airing on radio. When I was in Liège many years ago to catch a performance of Rossini’s William Tell, I was surprised to find in front of the Opera, a statue, not of César Franck who was also born in Liège, but of Grétry. In fact I could find no memorial, plaque on a birthplace or a street named for Franck!

L’amant Jaloux
L’amant Jaloux, ou les fausses apparences
which premiered in 1778, is based on a very popular 18th century English play, The Wonder: a Woman keeps her Secret by Susannah Centlivre.

An entry on it is to be found in the Penguin Opera Guide, even if not in many other opera dictionaries. The Penguin remarks that “Beaumarchais-Da Ponte-Mozart” borrowed from it (possible as The Marriage of Figaro was composed in 1784).

In an admirable programme essay, musical director Erin Helyard (who till recently was well-known here as lecturer in historical performance practice at the New Zealand School of Music at Victoria University) wrote that “it was Grétry who, more than any other operatic composer, really managed to unite Italianate vocality with French word-smithery”, which was the result of the impact of Pergolesi’s La serva padrona which had finally reached France in the early 1750s, instigating what was called the Querelle des bouffons, the battle between French and Italian operatic styles which soon became politicized in France as between conservatives and liberals.

This piece shows Grétry as having succeeded in merging the French and Italian styles, resulting in sounds that come close to Mozart and the story not too remote from Figaro and Così fan tutte.

The story: Spanish merchant Don Lopez, for financial reasons, needs to stop his widowed daughter Léonore (only 20 years old) from remarrying. The object of her affections is the ridiculously jealous Don Alonze; his first suspect turns out to be his own sister Isabelle, a friend of Léonore, who is protecting her from her guardian who want to marry her by force. There’s a dashing French officer and a clever maid who confuses the names of the two young women which reignites Alonze’s jealousy as he hears the French officer serenading the wrong girl. In the nick of time Alonze comes into a big inheritance thus removing Lopez’s objections to his daughter’s marriage, and the identities of the young ladies are clarified, leaving no impediments to the two couples marrying.

Never mind: it’s fast-moving; the acting was very animated and, as far as possible in a farce, the piece expresses a basic sincerity and humanity that emerged clearly enough through the surface nonsense. The spoken dialogue was in pretty clear English, sung parts in French with witty surtitles;

The staging was droll and clever with simple sets, dominated by a long diagonal wall studded with trapdoors that supply bizarre exits and entrances for those being hidden or making untoward entrances.

The singers
The six principals were splendidly voiced, mostly Australian singers with respectable international careers: David Greco, eight years with important ensembles in Europe, made an immediate impact as the domineering father, Don Lopez, an imposing voice and presence; Jacinte the Maid was sung by Jessica Aszodi, a perfect fit in the soubrette mould, shrewd, quick-witted. The main female role of Léonore was sung by Celeste Lazarenko who’s amassed an impressive range of roles in Britain and France as well as Australia: a vivid presence with a brilliant soprano voice. Ed Lyon (Don Alonze) has sung extensively with William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants as well as interesting roles at Glyndebourne and Covent Garden and with several Continental companies. Alonze’s sister and Léonore’s friend Isabelle was sung by Alexandra Oomens whose career has so far been limited to Australia, though her performance was hardly less striking than her more experienced colleagues: the three women, as a trio, offered some of the most delightful episodes of the evening. Andrew Goodwin was well cast as Florival, who is the imagined rival of Alonze, but eventually gets the right girl (Alonze’s sister); his career has ranged from Madrid to Moscow, including The Rake’s Progress with the Auckland Philharmonia.

Music director Erin Helyard was focus of all eyes (and known to a Wellingtonian as lecturer till recently in historical performance practice at the New Zealand School of Music), a small, vital, energetic man who stood at a harpsichord and hammered away at the ‘continuo’ part supporting the Orchestra of the Antipodes which contributed equally to the production’s success, with beautiful authentic instruments (the programme book drew attention to their using baroque pitch, A=430kh). The orchestra’s sound, at close quarters (in the front row) was splendid and the ensemble of voices wonderfully integrated.

I just loved every minute.

Sydney Symphony Orchestra
While I might be tempted to say this opera production eclipsed the two Sydney Symphony Orchestra concerts I heard, that wouldn’t be true. An opera performance is usually more engrossing than a normal concert by an orchestra or chamber group, if only because it involves more senses, but these two concerts, conducted by Edo de Waart, were splendid; anyway: a different orchestra and different town.

I had missed a solo recital in the Concert Hall by organist Olivier Latry the day before my first symphony concert, but he played the organ part Jongen’s Sinfonia Concertante as well as in Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra. It allowed me to reflect with some bitterness, about the feeble, irresolute behavior of the Wellington City Council which has removed the great organ from the Town Hall and is incapable of resolving to carry out the necessary strengthening of the building so that Wellington is able to hear a concert organ, important in many orchestral and choral works, not to mention concerts in one of the world’s finest traditional concert halls.

One of the curiosities of my trip was to encounter two rather obscure composers both of whom were born in Liège: Grétry, above, and now the composer of the big organ work played by the SSO and organist Olivier Latry, Joseph Jongen.

It’s curious that a piece that is probably not typical of most of Joseph Jongen’s output has probably become his best known work. It was commissioned to inaugurate the restoration of the huge organ in the Wanamaker department store in Philadelphia in 1928. This was a performance that showed vividly how important the existence of a real pipe organ of concert dimensions and capacities is for a city with any pretentions to being of musical consequence. The space afforded the music a fullness, clarity and excitement that cannot be expected in many churches, even one with as fine and versatile an organ as that in the Anglican cathedral in Wellington.

In the second half, Edo de Waart demonstrated his special affinity with the Strauss tone poem, thrillingly expansive in the famous opening, as well as, in turns, warmly human and ethereally mystical elsewhere in the great work.

The concert was curiously designed, starting with the Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin and ending with the Prelude to Act III. Their sharply contrasting characters fitted their roles most effectively; that they hardly raised any expectations of the music drama that follows each prelude was probably just as well; both work perfectly well as stand-alone concert pieces.

Edwards, Elgar and Mozart
The second concert, a week later, was for me rather less rewarding, dominated as it was by Elgar’s First Symphony. Though De Waart achieved a warm and beautiful performance, the cloying, grandiose, imperialist atmosphere that lies behind at least its first and last movements, I find hard to stomach. Happily, the conductor’s Dutch pianist colleague Ronald Brautigam occupied most of the first half with Mozart’s piano concert No 24 in C Minor. Both conductor and pianist approached it in a calm, rapturous spirit which I found deeply satisfying.

The concert had opened with an Australian piece I didn’t know by a composer with whom I was quite familiar – one of the country’s best-known and most popular contemporary composers, Ross Edwards. I came across his violin concerto, entitled Maninya, many years ago. It is actually one of five pieces written in what Edwards calls his ‘maninya’ style: the word means ‘dance’ or ‘chant’, and the work played here was White Ghost Dancing. The aboriginal people described the early European settlers as ‘white ghosts’ and Edwards wrote that “the concept of a white ghost came to symbolize non-indigenous Australia’s innate aboriginality – its capacity to transform and heal itself through spiritual connectedness with the earth”.

His music is immediately engaging, both through its infectious rhythmic character and tunefulness and a certain instrumental colour that recurs from time to time like a friendly gesture.

I was interested to hear Eva Radich’s interview with De Waart after I got home, in which he commented on his programming device of placing any ‘difficult’ work in the first half and the popular symphony or concerto in the second, to prevent those afraid of the unfamiliar from leaving at the interval.

De Waart has been a major presence in the orchestral world for a long time, with a large and impressive discography. I look forward to his tenure with the NZSO.

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